As the Tokyo Olympics wind down, the news stories vacillate between kid-from-nowhere makes good, upsets, returning heroes win again, and the crushing mental toll on the athletes. Some sports commentators tell athletes to go the stoic route and “suck it up, turn stress into motivation,” etc. That works for some, but with social media chatter and rich endorsement contracts on the line, athletes’ mental health concerns can’t be overlooked.
Did only Simone Biles suffer? Novak Djokovic lost semi-final and bronze medal chances and imploded, destroying one racket and throwing another into the stands. Katie Ledecky lost expected gold medals in the 4x200 relay and freestyle, citing the pressure of audience expectations. Simone Manuel, former gold medalist, lost her event due to overtraining syndrome and emotional stress. Caeleb Dressel, who appeared to be unaffected with 5 gold medals, stated “I cry a lot, it’s been a really tough year” and noted that before the Olympics he avoided people and read no social media.
Pandemic anxiety, isolation and stress has affected many people’s ability to perform at their peak and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Our readers have suggested that “speaking isn’t like the Olympics or war,” but tell that to someone who’s about to deliver a make-or-break presentation. They feel the same, and their bodies and brains react accordingly. We need coping mechanisms.
Every day, Dressel journaled how he felt about each event. For speakers, this exercise allows you to sift through your emotions and reactions. It can also release you from crushing anxiety. Intention is the best tool, focusing on your goal and relegating much of the noise, like others’ expectations, to a lower level.
And before every presentation, spend time alone warming up, getting limber and running through your outline. Then like Caeleb Dressel, if tears come, let them. Many are embarrassed or feel that crying shows weakness. It is the opposite. Emotions show that you care. Fighting your desire to cry doesn’t work. Let the tears flow, but don’t stop speaking. Focus on your intention and proceed to your gold.